Could wife sharing solve China’s 'guy glut'?

November 04, 2015 13:48
The hunt for a bride is intense in China, where there will be more than 30 million 'bare branches' by 2020. Prospects for those who earn low wages may be dire. Photo:

China may have as many as 30 million "bare branches" (bachelors who cannot extend the family tree) by 2020, the National Statistics Bureau has warned.

The country's gender imbalance is among the world’s worst: 118 baby boys are born for every 100 baby girls. 

What underlies this is thousands-of-years-old, stubborn male supremacy, and Beijing’s one-child policy must take its fair share of the blame, too.

Not only have the Chinese born since the 1980s become a generation without siblings, the redundant males in their prime marriageable ages are hard put to find a mate of the opposite sex.

But a mainland university professor thinks there's nothing to worry about.

Explaining the gender imbalance using simple economic theory, the scholar wrote in a column that there is a constant “short supply” of females, so suitors who are not up to par will be crowded out in the keen hunt for brides.

Most of these bachelors belong to the underprivileged class and have low education levels, low skills and low incomes.

His prescription, on top of allowing same-sex marriage, is polyandry -- in which a woman has more than one husband -- as an ultimate remedy.

Specifically, he argues that two or even more low-wage earners can foot the bill together to share a wife.

But just as with the “tragedy of the commons” – individuals pursuing their own benefits tend to deplete common resources and thus compromise the best interests of the whole group – I fear that none of the several husbands of a married woman may be willing to fulfill his marital duties of supporting and protecting his shared wife, and so the knots tied in this way may not last long.

Polyandry and Wife-Selling in Qing Dynasty China, an interesting new book by Stanford University historian Matthew Sommer, has some insights to offer.

Sommer specializes in sexuality, gender relations, chosen kinship, family composition and law during the Qing dynasty.

His studies show the problem of bare branches, or the marriage crunch, was nothing new in ancient times, and even the Qing dynasty experienced a “guy glut”.

Even though aristocrats and imperial scholars -- many of whom were polygamous, with more than one wife or concubine -- despised polyandry and thought of it as a rebellion against feudal ethics, wife-sharing was not rare in poverty-stricken rural areas back then.

For instance, Sommer noted in his book, in the mid-1800s, a woman in Fujian province married a second man after her first husband became blind and could not work the land.

The woman lived with both men under one roof.

What the second husband got, on top of accommodation, was, of course, sexual intimacy.

She had two daughters later, although it was hard to tell who their real father was.

There has always been a spike in polyandry when disasters, either natural or manmade, struck, as ordinary couples, many of whom were peasants, could not make ends meet.

Some of them opted to sell their children, while in other cases, a man had to share his wife with another man in exchange for aid.

Polyandry was indeed the last resort, driven by the need to survive.

Yet since it was humiliating and considered immoral, many second husbands were given no official role in the family.

Neither would they be included in the family records.

Today, the keys to resolving China’s problem of redundant men are to eradicate the dogma of male supremacy and to let people decide how many children they want to have.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Oct. 29.

Translation by Frank Chen

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Young men wait in line to attend a matchmaking party. Photo: CRI
Young women at matchmaking parties are highly sought after. Often, the event ends up as a series of interviews with the women as judges. Photo:

A famous Hong Kong writer; founder of the Hong Kong Economic Journal